Originally created 11/27/03

Graham plans system reform



AIKEN - Fresh from casting a vote against the Medicare bill, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will travel to Aiken early next week to visit a defense contractor and take the political pulse of this staunchly Republican county.

Mr. Graham, who voted Tuesday against the addition of a prescription benefit to Medicare, now wants to revive a proposal to rescue the Social Security system from future red ink by letting younger workers invest some of their payroll tax in the stock market.

Although he opposed President Bush on the Medicare bill, earlier in the week Mr. Graham launched a Social Security plan favored by the president. In the process, he is risking the ire of retirees by pushing for Social Security reform he deems necessary to prevent the federal safety net from going bankrupt as the work force shrinks, creating more beneficiaries than contributors.

Now, with the Senate in holiday recess, he has to defend both moves on his home turf. Only the vote against the Medicare drug provision has the potential of giving him immediate headaches, said Robert Botsch, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

"He'll have a little more problem with that one because of the large number of retirees moving here," Mr. Botsch said.

True to his roots as a fiscal conservative, Mr. Graham has a ready answer for both provisions. He opposed the Medicare drug provision because it will cost an estimated $400 billion over the next decade, a projected price tag that could rapidly spiral upward, he said.

"Some are calling this the greatest thing since sliced white bread," Mr. Graham said in a prepared statement. "I think it's going to be more like New Coke. Sounds like a great idea until you actually try it."

The senator did favor some provisions of the Medicare bill, including means-testing for wealthy seniors - finding out which seniors don't need financial help to buy medicines - but said the reforms didn't go far enough to offset the costs of the drug provision.

On Social Security, Mr. Graham said action must be taken now to address the retirement of the baby boom generation. In 2018, Social Security will start paying more benefits than it collects in payroll taxes. By 2042, the system will be bankrupt, he said.

Mr. Graham said lawmakers now have two choices: Raise payroll taxes by 50 percent or cut benefits by 30 percent. Under his proposed legislation, Americans age 54 and younger could stay in the current system and pay more than the present 12.4 percent in payroll taxes to get the same level of benefits; pay the current amount and get reduced benefits; or set up a personal retirement account.

Workers could put about a third of their payroll tax contribution into this account to a maximum of $1,300 a year. That money could be placed in a select number of conservative investments.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.